Be Here Now
Eric Hynes on A Woman Under the Influence

I can’t find anything to corroborate my memory, but I think it was on an evening in the early summer of 1997 that I sat in the balcony of Manhattan’s Paris Theater and watched A Woman Under the Influence for the first time. It was the first John Cassavetes film I had ever seen, and though I’m not proud of the fact that I lived through college without having seen a single Cassavetes film, I’ll always be grateful that my acquaintance with him started there. Well, acquaintance is one way one to put it—full-on conversion is another. I don’t remember why I saw that film and not one of the other Cassavetes films playing the retrospective—I must have heard something at some point about the film, perhaps enough to have previously claimed to have seen it (something I was often guilty of in those days, ever afraid of being or sounding less than authoritative), or maybe I was just innocently drawn to the premise or the grandiose title. Regardless of what got me there, I wasn’t prepared. I emerged from the screening changed. I had the sort of experience I often expected to have when encountering works of art but rarely, if ever, actually did. From that night forward, I saw the world differently.

I knew it immediately. During the walk to the car, I did weird gesticulating Gena Rowlands things with my arms and walked with a pronounced Peter Falk gait. As I spoke ineloquently about what I’d seen, I was newly conscious of and intrigued by my voice and body. My companions that night, my brother and my best friend, were also moved by the film, but I don’t remember giving them time to speak. Everything I had ever seen up until then, every movie, every play—hell, every novel or poem or painting—seemed suddenly false. I rapidly re-evaluated it all, and found the whole of art deficient in what A Woman Under the Influence abounded in: truth. A new standard was set, one that no longer valued perfection or self-consciousness above all things, one that rather recoiled from mediated performance and presentation, and deemed as vain and artificial anything less than naked, imperfect honesty and unpredictability. Though I eventually tempered my expectations and re-permitted elegant, formalized, less emotionally direct art-making (and abandoned the idea of a single standard for anything)—that viewing experience, and my astonishment over what a single two-and-a-half-hour movie could accomplish, lingered. A Woman Under the Influence was the greatest work of art I had ever seen precisely because it cared not about being a great work of art—and yet was. It forsook conventional narrative, shot-making, and characterization—not for the self-conscious sake of unconventionality, but to express life more truly. It was, and remains for me, uncomfortably, stubbornly, exhilaratingly alive.

I’ve since learned that my Cassavetes conversion experience is similar to what many others have felt after seeing A Woman Under the Influence, or Shadows, Faces, Husbands, Minnie & Moskowitz, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Gloria, or Love Streams. Cassavetes’s work is so unlike any other cinema, in look, feel, or tempo, and of such a sustained, shaggy dog vision from first film to last (though not without its formal developments, genre experimentations, and increasingly cubist interiorization of character), that any one of his films can take an unsuspecting viewer by life-altering surprise. It’s been this way since the first private screening of his first uncompleted film. Jonas Mekas, writing for the Village Voice, said of the since famously unavailable first cut of Shadows, “It makes as strong an attempt at catching (and retaining) life as Citizen Kane was making an attempt at destroying life and creating art…It doesn’t prove anything, it doesn’t even want to say anything, but really it tells more than ten or one hundred and ten other recent American films.” The John the Baptist for Christ Cassavetes, Mekas was the first (though far from last) to emerge from a Cassavetes film and deem all other cinema categorically false. The religiosity of the response is unmistakable, a recognition of the right way and a passionate disgust for the wrong. Mekas was perhaps the truest believer, as Cassavetes’s subsequent recut of Shadows was for him nothing short of heresy. Few of us, it seems, will ever get to evaluate the nature of the recut for ourselves (a surviving copy surfaced several years ago but was quickly taken out of circulation like an unwanted apocryphal document). Mekas, like the Baptist, seemed to have lost his head for his beliefs, and despite his ire for what the film actually became, the word had already spread and the myth of the consummate American indie was born.

Cassavetes, through his peerless filmmaking and prickly iconoclasm, embodied the word well for as long as he lived, but the church of Cassavetes didn’t really get going until Ray Carney, a St. Paul with his own conversion tale to tell, became the lone impassioned voice of praise in the desert of cinema studies (the epilogue to his “The Films of John Cassavetes” book is called, The Religion of Doing). Carney found forebears for Cassavetes in American humanists and pragmatists like Emerson and William James while unflatteringly contrasted and shouting down as sacred cows canonical filmmakers like Welles, Kubrick, Hitchcock, and Bergman. Carney’s books are ardently written, uncommonly compelling (at least as far as film studies is concerned), and his knowledge of the subject is unmatched. But like Paul, or any preacher or scholar this committed, he tends toward possessiveness and exclusivity (his biblical Cassavetes on Cassavetes conspicuously lacks an index or bibliography, a territorial roadblock for future research and scholarship).

I’m no longer as firm in my belief as I was, I no longer make friends fastest with other converts (mostly male, most as haplessly earnest as myself), I no longer hold forth Carney’s book and find it fit for year-round gifting, I no longer seek as a soul-mate a Gena Rowlands look-a-like with a crazy-melancholic offbeat love of love and propensity for dancing on the coffee table. But the fact is I once did. There are many for whom these films don’t amount to much (David Thomson would be a good place to start if you’re looking for that sort of affirmation), but for myself and others, Cassavetes films trigger something, maybe it’s romantic, maybe it’s humanist, maybe it’s childish and regressive for all I know, but it doesn’t look or feel familiar. His art is that unfamiliar feeling conveyed by and constructed entirely of filmed behavior as familiarly human as possible. The shock comes from the recognition that you’ve not seen anything quite so recognizably, holistically human on film before, and you’re never quite prepared for it no matter how many subsequent times you encounter it. It’s a secular phenomena well worth believing in, though also one as elusive to explain as any other faith, thus the plaintive, abstract superlatives from Carney and gut-level rabble-rousing provocations from Cassavetes himself, and the thousands of words of avoidance from yours truly, circling around exactly why and how A Woman Under the Influence staggers me so.

The film, which had originally been intended as a play, actually has an almost symmetrical three-act structure, an organization that’s actually not very helpful or comforting for the viewer, as acts ultimately blur from the asymmetrical deployment of scenes, scenes that seem organically written from within, playing both shorter and longer than expected, keeping us both under-informed and overexposed. Perhaps most importantly the film never prioritizes the viewer, either in establishing legible motivation, causality, or background, or satisfying our need-to-know curiosity, or even in placing the camera in an effectively informative location. It’s not that the viewer is secondary or second-class, it’s just that Cassavetes philosophically refuses to prioritize any single point of view. Everyone in the room has their own vantage and deserves at least that acknowledgment, and the viewer, represented by the camera, is no different. In this sense, the room, whether it be a bar, the back of a pickup, or the all-important family house, is a sacred egalitarian space. The viewer’s privilege is simply being invited. Coming to terms with our place in this system, and accepting that the film doesn’t necessarily play to please us, is essential for realizing what Cassavetes is after, and for realizing how powerful it can be to just be there, watching life unfold.

What unfolds is nothing less than several days over six months time in the thrilling banality of Mabel and Nick Longhetti’s marriage, full of yelling and cooing and slapping and singing, smiling and mugging and dancing and fainting, alternatingly impulsive and calculated, desperate and beautiful. Mabel and Nick look and feel real, they act almost too imperfectly human to bear at times, and yet the sum total is something more heightened than real. Cassavetes’s artifice is to pile on the commonness—to overwhelm us with the ordinary everydayness of being—so that the every-so-slight uncommonness of the narrative arc feels fully earned. It’s what separates him from imitative docu-realists, who aim to make their films look and play like they aren’t fiction. Cassavetes doesn’t care if you’re conscious of the artifice so long as it feels real. (It’s how he gets away—intentionally I think—with occasional script incontinuities, uncorrected sound inconsistencies and film equipment infiltration like the intrusion of a boom mic into an early scene in Gloria or a visible camera operator behind a taxi cab in Love Streams. To acknowledge a film crew outside the frame only intensifies the cauldron of shared space that Cassavetes is fostering). Sure it’s fiction, but something real is definitely happening.

What is happening, above all else, is Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk filling the space with the physical embodiment of conflicted emotions. Strong, primary color emotions that blend or clash at a second’s notice. We spend a lot of time with Mabel and Nick, though not necessarily any longer than we’d spend with any other film protagonists—particularly since Cassavetes likes to turn his camera on any and everyone else with whom they share their scenes, dwelling on a listening face or watching a simple act of standing or sitting—and yet our time with them feels uncommonly intimate. They constantly do and say the wrong thing—Mabel thinks that she can charm the world and be forgiven for her transgressions simply because she means well and loves her husband and children above all else; Nick wants to control Mabel while simultaneously celebrating—and enabling—her lunacy. Neither means malice, and yet cause each other great emotional harm. They do try to fix themselves: Mabel offers to become whatever Nick wants her to be, thus dutifully straightens up at the funny farm only to spin back out of control at his encouragement, and Nick is always doubling back on himself, intent on doing what’s right and best for everyone from Mabel to his mother, his children, and his employees. But no one is fixed at the end, the same problems and conflicts remain as strong as before, but the will to move forward and remain together, to live with the consequences of loving too much, is well established. Too much: no two words better speak to Cassavetes art of human hyperbole. Live too much, love too much, feel too much, and you’re his kind of people. I’m drawn to it not because I share in those excesses but because I admire its potential in myself and others. I’m ultimately cautious and self-preservational because I know and fear the cost—to myself and others—of not holding back. Still, not holding back seems more honest, seems synonymous with self-respect and integrity, and seems to be the crucial thread-pull for all of our emotional and psychological entanglements. But unlike Mabel and Nick, most of us don’t have the resilience to live with the consequences.

Somehow neither Mabel nor Nick, for all their naked imperfections, can be easily shaken or second-guessed. At every moment, regardless of the eventual reaction to their words or actions, their faces convey a storm of contemplation that we simply can’t imagine. They may be baffled by each other and by themselves, but they know more than we do. The best we can do is watch, empathize, and identify like any decent person humble enough to know we don’t know any better. The same goes for every other character on screen. None can be dismissed, contradicted, or vilified. Nick’s shrill mother comes closest (played with astonishing self-effacement by Cassavetes own mother, Katherine), guilty of loving and protecting her son to the point of mistreating Mabel, but even she becomes Mabel’s advocate in the end. All have limitations, but we’ll never know the real shape of those limitations, and whenever possible Cassavetes makes sure their decency exceeds our expectations.

He establishes this “you don’t know anything” ethic from the beginning by allowing us to make snap judgments about uncontextualized characters before subverting them. He lets us think that Mabel doesn’t love Nick because she takes home another man, and he lets us think that Nick cares more about his job than he does Mabel, both soon proven false. He lets us judge actions, like Mabel’s physical affection for Nick’s co-workers, and Nick’s subsequent harsh scolding of Mabel, without knowing intent or precedence. We’re left to our own devises, but our devises are proven inadequate. Once stripped of bias, we’re forced to look with new eyes. By discreetly dismantling our familiar frame of reference rather than alienatingly flying in the face of it, A Woman Under the Influence is singularly effective in its radical intent. Not everyone emerges from the film a convert to the Cassavetes cult, but at least as many filmmakers have been birthed by it as bands famously born of the Velvet Underground, or authors of Hemingway or Carver.

When I recently swapped top ten favorite films with my mother, it was on both our lists, despite our wildly divergent tastes. For Cassavetes, A Woman Under the Influence was a peak in terms of mainstream attention and critical respect, a product of its stealthy accessibility and of the progressiveness of American cinema culture in the early Seventies. The middle film of his nine independent features (though his two studio pictures, Too Late Blues and A Child Is Waiting, deserve more attention and scrutiny than they’ve thus far been given, both for the way that Cassavetes’s compromises complicate his renegade reputation, and for their hybrid, oddball effectiveness), the film features a strong weave of melodrama as well as two take-notice performances by its stars (well deserving of their own essays or dissertations, Falk for breaking my heart, and Rowlands for the most fully human screen performance since the advent of sound) but its normative appeal only affirms its effectiveness at subversion. After all, this is a film that treats its first fifty minutes like a preamble, a constantly rolling narrative without discernible shape or sustained conflict, with dozens of unnamed characters moving through confusing, unestablished spaces and then, at who knows what hour of the day, gathering to eat spaghetti in the bedroom. And hold a singing contest. And casually take note of a seasonal increase in baby carriages by attributing it to “something in the air.” What’s going on here? What was I watching? I didn’t know, and regardless of whether or not I now have a better sense of the larger design (of the film and of Cassavetes’s art), it still doesn’t matter. It’s like nothing else on film, and I can’t take my eyes off of it.